Apex Magazine #22, March 2011
“The Dust and the Red” by Darin Bradley
“The Speaking Bone” by Kat Howard
Reviewed by Indrapramit Das
This months’ Apex showcases some of the recent changes to the magazine, including a new subscription system similar to Lightspeed, whereas subscribers are allowed access to the monthly two stories immediately, and others have to wait till the end of the month for free access. Fair enough; it allows for some revenue without taking away the free distribution of stories for a wider online audience. Other changes are aesthetic, giving the site a cleaner, more professional look that I approve of. That’s just me.
The two stories are interesting, with a literary or slipstream bent. I like when speculative fiction magazines are flexible with content, allowing for different explorations of what is a vast and fluid set of genres, so I was glad to see this. As long as the fiction’s good, speculative fiction all along the spectrum, from pure pulp to literary lyricism and experimentation, should be encouraged by readers, writers and editors of this marvelous umbrella we all work under.
Darin Bradley’s “The Dust and the Red” is a fantastical vision of Dust Bowl era America, giving us a glimpse of two farming families striving to preserve their livelihood in this time of turmoil, using talismanic objects that appear to exert an influence over their crops. The Finchers have a wax man, which helps them flourish, and the Lindsays have a wax-coated black pearl, which fails them. The narrator, Caroline, one of the Lindsays, bears witness—to her brother Jonah’s hubris, her parents’ failings, the ominous rise in power of the Finchers and their son Henry.
If that sounds clear-cut, it isn’t. The story is open to broad interpretation, written in a lyrical, obfuscating fashion that makes story and action unclear, and subtext muddled, though visible. The writing and imagery is often beautiful, and the setting effectively evoked:
“A few had survived the fever, the wheat-to-cotton maelstrom that angered the soil. When the new rigs settled, without any fallow rest, the dirt had nested in us–in the lungs and the bellies of all of the children. Switching kids–wheat-to-cotton. Wheat-to-cotton. Those as passed on, they went underground to sleep in puddles of fairy mud, mother said, to live in dirt mounds and dark wells.”
But the tale sometimes comes off as deliberately vague, and too figurative for its own good. It’s more magic realist than fantasy, with the rules and logic of its world thrown in the air for the benefit of poeticism, even though Bradley seems to establish an internally consistent fantasy world at first. A good read, if you go in expecting that. I craved more narrative solidity, though.
Kat Howard’s “The Speaking Bone” is in a similarly poetic vein, though her story is more mythic than magic realist. The piece concerns an island made entirely of bones, populated by three emaciated women (evoking the many female trinities, such as the Furies, found in various mythologies), and visited by travellers seeking oracular enlightenment, which inevitably comes at a price. The prose flows with confidence and rhythm:
“If you were to ask one of these votaresses of the bones how she came to the island, she would not speak. If you were fortunate, she might smile, and place a scaphoid or a hamate in your palm. Worn smooth by wind, polished by the sea, the bone would be the only answer your question required.”
The above quote demonstrates why this story works better for me than Bradley’s; the story itself serves to answer any questions that it raises, and its obscurity seems deliberate, and expected. It places bones in your hand, and the sensation of holding these bones is enough. It makes your mind fill in possibilities without trying, whereas Bradley’s story makes you try constantly, without ever succeeding fully. Of course, it’s all down to taste in the end—both Bradley and Howard are talented writers.
The story hums with its own age and careful wisdom—this is an old story, if not in our world, then in some other. The story’s ability to mimic the incandescence of real myth excuses Howard’s decision to eschew actual characters and narrative.
It’s short, and effective.
To sum up—two good, well written stories, which might appeal to readers of literary fiction as well as speculative fiction fans.